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Managing MJ: Francona recalls summer with Jordan

Managing MJ: Francona recalls summer with Jordan

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Terry Francona was not going to miss the opportunity to send some birthday wishes to an old friend. He pulled out his phone on Sunday, found Michael Jordan's number and shot a text message to the basketball legend.

"I got a text right back," said Francona, smirking. "There were a couple curse words in there that you can't quote me on."

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Jordan turned 50 on Sunday, making anyone who remembers his days as an NBA superstar feel a little bit older. That Francona and Jordan became close was an exercise in pure chance. Nearly two decades ago, when Jordan retired from basketball for the first time, he decided to try his hand at baseball.

For that one season, Francona was Jordan's manager with Double-A Birmingham in the White Sox farm system.

Over the past couple of weeks, as Jordan's milestone birthday spawned a multitude of TV and magazine specials, Francona has been peppered with requests to talk about the spring and summer of 1994. On Monday, the Indians' manager dove headfirst into the topic once again.

Francona said he never minds talking about Jordan.

"Shoot, where do you want me to start?" Francona said. "I love him."

A good place as any to begin is Jordan's first day in Birmingham.

Coming off three straight NBA titles with the Bulls, it goes without saying that the then 31-year-old Jordan had become accustomed to a certain style of living. Upon reaching his new Minor League town, Jordan's first question to Francona was about the team's travel arrangements. He wanted to know if the team flew to each road city.

"I said, 'No, man. We bus everywhere,'" Fracona recalled. "He goes, 'OK, cool,' and then he said, 'Is it nice?' I said, 'No, it stinks.'"

The next day, there were four buses lined up in a parking lot for Francona to inspect. Jordan had them brought in as potential replacements. Francona stepped into the first one, took a look around and could not help but laugh.

"It was a bus for like a rock band," Francona said. "I remember he was all proud. I was like, 'Hey man. My seat's good, and yours looks OK, but what about the other 25 guys?' So we kind of dismissed that bus."

They settled on a brand new bus among the fleet, and Jordan scrawled his signature on the door. He did not have to pay for the bus, and neither did the ballclub. There was a handshake agreement that -- after the season was over -- the bus would be given to the group that provided it to Jordan and his Barons teammates.

It became known as the Jordan Cruiser.

"I remember getting questions like, 'How's the wet bar?'" Francona said, laughing. "It was just a new bus."

Francona remembers Jordan as a coachable player with an unmatched desire to win. There was one point when Jordan was mired in an awful hitting slump -- it should have been expected given that he had not played baseball since high school -- and Francona called him into his office on the road in Memphis.

The slump was eating at Jordan and Francona did what he could to lift his spirits.

"I said, 'Hey man, look, you need to remember who you are and why you're doing this,'" Francona said. "'You're making yourself miserable.' And I think it helped. I said, 'Look, you're not like the rest of these guys,' because he was beating himself up.

"I've seen him break tennis rackets, break a ping pong table. He didn't take losing very well."

Francona read the rumors about why Jordan stepped away from basketball.

Much was made of Jordan's reported compulsive gambling issues, which came to the public surface in '93. That was also, however, the same year that Jordan's father, James Jordan, was murdered. It has been well documented that Jordan's dad had dreams of his son playing in the Major Leagues.

Jordan told Francona there was even more behind his decision.

"He was having a hard time with basketball," Francona said. "He said he'd show up to the arena, he'd put his headphones on, he'd play the game, answer the media and leave. To this day, I think for that one year, I think trying to get a hit in Memphis or Birmingham meant as much to him as what the NBA used to."

In 127 games that season, Jordan hit .202 with three home runs, 17 doubles and 51 RBIs for the Barons. He stole 30 bases, but he also struck out 114 times and made 11 errors in the outfield. In the Arizona Fall League, Jordan hit .252 with the Scottsdale Scorpions.

Jordan was raw, and his stats were rough in spots, but Francona is quick to remind that this elite basketball superstar was starting baseball from scratch on the professional level.

"If he would've been willing to give it a couple more years," Francona said, "he would've found his way to the big leagues. First of all, if you tell him no, he's going to find a way to make it be yes."

Francona did get to see Jordan's superior skill on the basketball court, too.

Jordan got wind of a pickup game between Francona and two of his Birmingham coaches, and joined the group for some "shooting around." Francona's apartment complex at the time had a concrete basketball court and word quickly spread through the neighborhood that Jordan was out shooting hoops.

"Next thing you know, here comes the neighborhood," Francona said. "So we start playing a pickup game, and it was getting rough. There was a big guy -- you could tell he was an ex-college player -- and he was pushing [Jordan] around."

M.J. did not take this lightly.

Jordan dribbled to mid-court, sweat dripping from his face, the basketball under his arm, and he pointed at the man brave enough to get rough with him.

"He says, 'I'm going right there,'" said Francona, whose eyes widened at the memory. "And I'm thinking my managing career is over."

Jordan charged forward, bounced the basketball just once and then went airborne.

The next thing Francona remembers is seeing Jordan standing over the other player, while the rim -- ripped away from its hinges -- dangled from the backboard above.

"I was like, 'Oh my God,'" Francona said. "I was glad I saw that. But then I was like, 'Game over! We're going home!'"

Jordan returned to basketball the next spring and then he won three more championships with the Bulls.

Francona is thrilled that, for one year, their paths crossed on a baseball diamond.

"You get thrust into a position just by luck," Francona said. "You're learning on the run so fast, how to talk to the media and be organized. It was just a whirlwind.

"I'm very fond of him. He was really good to me. I'll always be a big fan."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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